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Millionaires Vs. Slumdogs, creates Economic Orientalism

by Anuja Prashar

Today the global village, gives the phrase ‘Everything is Relative’ a whole new meaning. The so called ‘victory’ of the movie “Slumdog Millionaire”, which won 8 prizes at the Oscars – none for acting - brings into harsh light the asymmetry, ambivalence and atavism of the process called globalisation.

“Slumdog Millionaire” is a low-budget production from a merger of Hollywood, India’s Bollywood, and the British movie industry. Bollywood provided most of the cast and crew, realizing a dramatic cost advantage at 8.5 million dollars for whole production. Hollywood provided the global marketing reach and the British team provided expert direction and production capability.

The story for the movie was adapted from a novel by Vikram Swarup, who acknowledges to Stuart Jefferies of the that the story was given an “extreme makeover” for screen. “Slumdog Millionaire” situated within slum life of Mumbai, has been astonishingly successfully marketed as a ‘feel good’ movie across the globe. The movie is a dark and edgy reality piece, directed by famous British director Danny Boyle, with scattered moments of humor, irony and a Bollywood style song providing relief at the end.

We are all familiar with the fact that income growth and wealth distribution, across the globe, is asymmetrical. How many of us feel moved to consider corrective action, when we learn that this movie has grossed $163 million at the box office and that the two children from the largest slum of Asia, who played cameo roles in the movie, were only paid $500.00 and $1,400.00 respectively – with a unspecified amount set up in trust fund, if they should remain in school until the age of 18. There are many questions that emerge when we reflect upon these issues, and I wish to deal with only three.

Firstly, in keeping with the spirit of an assumed equitable globalisation, if the vote for the Oscar prizes were also to take account of a panel of judges that included members from the Indian and British movie industry, would the final outcome have been the same?

Secondly, how many people across the globe evaluate the commercial power of the global movie industry, from the perspective of the ‘slum children’s parents’, who initially refused to send their children to Los Angels for the Oscar event – instead, they asked the producers to give them the money that would be spent on travel and accommodation for the children.

Most importantly, would it be possible to market a movie based in the UK, such as “This is England” – a reality piece about a young boy growing up on a council estate - in the same way that “Slumdog Millionaire” has been promoted? What does this tell us about how representation is functioning within the movie industry and amongst movie audiences? Where and how will inequalities of wealth, power and representation be addressed in the future, within the context of globalization that assumes a level or ‘flattening’ playing field?

The late world renowned scholar, Edward Said, suggested the theory of Orientalism to explain a “Western style for dominating, restructuring and having authority over the Orient.” I am suggesting that we consider how the success of “Slumdog Millionaire” may be premised upon and constitutive of the development of an “Economic Orientalism” that is founded upon defining the economic condition of the ‘other’ as exotic.

On the same day that “Slumdog Millionaire” won 8 Oscars, European leaders meeting in Berlin, agreed that they and ‘emerging economies’ must all refrain from national forms of protectionism and start to cooperate with new forms of global regulation of financial flows. This demand becomes confusing when we become aware that some of the global leaders have recently made overarching national agenda statements such as - “Buy American”, “British jobs for British workers” and French Premier Sarkozy said, “We want to stop moving factories abroad, and perhaps we will bring them back”

The ambiguity in practise of wealth distribution, power sharing and representational systems, become an acute concern when we understand that power within the global financial community is highly concentrated. The USA and Europe dominate the pool of capital markets, with USA holding assets of $50 trillion, Europe holding $30 trillion and the top 50 financial institutions of the world (majority based in USA & Europe), together own assets worth 48.5 trillion, of the total global estimated $140 trillion. Global GDP is estimated at about $47 trillion, with the USA and European Union estimated at about $13.20 trillion and $13.74 trillion, respectively. (Figures based on 2008 estimates).

Developing countries - such as India, with almost 280 million people living below the poverty line, and a GDP of $1 trillion – are obliged to focus national policies to allow their own ‘slumdogs’, working poor, middle classes and business class an opportunity to gain a slice of the pie. However, the recent rapid increase in numbers of unemployed, working poor and socially unprotected citizens across US and Europe, makes for a contradiction between the national needs of each country and the aspirational global policies that are creating ‘pie in the sky’.

The numbers of unemployed in USA alone is expected to increase by 3.2 million in 2009, taking the total unemployment rate up to 9%. The growing national debt, bailouts to nationalise banks and bailout of manufacturing corporations in USA and European Union, has created a more inward looking approach for national fiscal policies.

Although the Obama fiscal stimulus package was praised as being better than the previous one, put together by the Bush team, leading American economists Jeffrey Sachs, Joseph Stiglits and Edward Phelps, appearing on the Fareed Zakaria GPS programme on CNN, critically point out that there is no mention of the ‘poor’, ‘poverty’ or ‘working poor’ within any of the documents for the fiscal stimulus plan, housing plan or bailout plan. Jeffrey Sachs declared that this is despite the fact that USA today has a “rising population of tens of millions of Americans who are unable to provide for themselves, their families and who also have no health insurance”.

Further ambivalence is created about whom we are regulating, protecting or empowering and from or for whom, by the discussions in Berlin and Davos 2009, where signifying terms of difference are used, within of the discourses of global and national economy, as if they were being applied equally and to mean the same thing. This also holds true for the movie industry.

US media reports that although set in a foreign land “Slumdog Millionaire” has universal appeal with its theme of “optimism” that has been embraced by U.S. audiences. “Slumdog Millionaire” producer Christian Colson said. “I think America is cool again, for the first time in my lifetime. ... I think this is a symptom of how it’s beginning to embrace a more-globalized view of the world.” There is an ironic paradox, of a more ‘worldly’ American audience which relates to a foreign land, through a movie of a generation akin to that of a dark ‘reality show’, situated in the slum life of Mumbai, India.

“Slumdog Millionaires“ script writer Simon Beaufoy, who won the adapted-screenplay Oscar - said the film clicked with audiences stung by the current recession and that the realization that “This money thing, it’s been shown to be a real false idol. It’s a film that says there’s more important things than money: love, faith and family. And that struck a chord with people.” Beaufoy’s interpretation of the reaction of a US audience, which is moved to reject materialism, contradicts the fact that the US is still the largest consumer market in the world.

Representational system applied in this movie, to portray issues of faith, love and family within India, do not demonstrate what Beaufoy wishes to portray - rather the movie emphasizes dark injustices of the dysfunctional aspects of faith, family and love. Many scenes were violent and disturbing - more likely to invoke shock or pity. Beaufoy and Colson both also fail to acknowledge the psychological phenomenon of voyeurism, that is at the root of the burgeoning ‘reality show’ industry today.

The compounded result of creating the exotic ‘poor’ in “Slumdog Millionaire” and western leadership rhetoric, is the emergence of an ‘Economic Orientalism’, that defines western economic status as relative to that of the emerging or developing economic status. The positioning of the two, ‘them’ and ‘us’ allows for power and influence to remain centred within a national frame of reference, at the individual level and the national level.

For example, Gordon Brown asserting Britain’s suitability for global leadership of global financial regulation. This discursive approach supports a continuation of the ‘them’ and ‘us’ stance, reminiscent of western ancestral periods of history, with re-imagined notions of a national global leadership.

Leading sociologist and Race theorist Paul Gilroy has suggested that “The west today suffers from melancholia and a state of denial of its own condition”. Drawing upon this analysis, I ask that we consider the possibility that audiences of “Slumdog Millionaire” and western government leaders, continue to define the ‘self’ by defining the ‘other’. Today, there is a need to inspire confidence and trust in a failed global economic system led by the west. Self reflection by the west, in order to correct mistakes made in the past, is the first step. However, I feel that the current method of self assessment, in competition and binary opposition to ‘emerging nation states’ or ‘other’ poor, may not be undertaken with the courage, honesty and openness that is required for sustainable long term solutions.

The binary oppositional positioning of nations within a global economy, is not shared by everyone. On the same day of the Oscars event and the Berlin meeting, a panel of Asian experts on Fareed Zakaria’s GPS program CNN, tell a very different story.

Kishore Mahbubani, Dean of the National University of Singapore stated, “My sense is that there is still optimism in Asia because China knows that economic growth in future will occur in India and China. So there is no intellectual retreat from the processes of globalization amongst Indian and Chinese elites or experts.”

Shekhar Gupta, Chief Editor for the Indian Express, went further to explain that, “Indians do not see the global economy as a ‘zero sum game’.” In other words, Asian leadership no longer assessed global economic interdependency in terms of winners and losers -Slumdogs and Millionaires - but recognizes that within a globalizing world system, we will all rise or fail together.

Given that this is true, is not then time to address, and not simply state or capture on the big screen, the accesses of inequality? Is it not time now to move away from past failed systems that emphasis and maintain ‘differences’, towards systems that empower the principle of interdependency? Is it not time now to use the opportunity of this current economic crisis, to bring about a dialogue amongst human equals, for sustainable economic growth and longevity of all people on the globe?

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